Kris Berwouts (°1963-2023) studeerde Afrikaanse taalkunde en geschiedenis in Gent.
Why African countries prefer not to get embroiled in Russia's war
Africa voted very divided on the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion in the Ukraine. What is the political impact of the conflict on Africa’s cohesion?
The outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the same across the board: in Africa, the picture looks rather different. ‘As Africans, we do not feel involved in this conflict at all’. Or perhaps the invasion offers a new opportunity for African countries to distance themselves from Western interference?
Cease military operations in Ukraine immediately: that was the demand of the General Assembly of the United Nations in early March, laid down in a new, recently approved resolution. An overwhelming majority of the UN member states, 141 out of 193, supported the resolution. A small minority did not: 5 countries voted against, 35 abstained and 12 simply did not vote at all.
Is the Russian influence on the continent greater than we thought?
The proportions were entirely different when solely considering the 54 African UN Member States. 28 of them, just over half, voted in favour of the resolution. Of the total of 35 abstentions, almost half came from an African country (16), and of the 12 countries that did not vote, 9 were African. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against.
On the other hand, the African Union (AU) did explicitly condemn the Russian invasion. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and his Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall, who recently became president of the AU, are actively seeking a role as mediator.
What exactly is happening in Africa? Is the voting behaviour of the African UN member states driven by an anti-Western attitude? Is the Russian influence on the continent greater than we thought? Are the few fledgling African democracies already in decline?
Putin in Africa
Africa is hot. From different angles, countries are trying to assume strategic positions on the continent. Raw materials are important, but also demographics: Africa, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, is already the third largest market in the world, just after China and India. In addition, it has an ideal location, at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, and the promise of a number of emerging countries, which are expected to claim economic leadership in the near future.
Nobody wants to miss out. The old colonial powers will not be pushed aside and new players are emerging. The United States expanded its presence in Africa during the period of decolonisation. China stepped in at the beginning of the century, when it was in need of more raw materials to consolidate its newly acquired status as an economic superpower.
And today, even more countries are putting their foot in the door: India, Turkey, Israel, Brazil, and also Russia, among others. At present, Russia has 40 embassies in Africa. Only China (52 embassies), the United States (48) and France (47) do better.
Russia is also attempting to build a counterweight to the US military unit in Africa.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it became internationally isolated. To break through that isolation, the country actively sought influence and allies in Africa. In October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin received 43 African heads of state at a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi. He promised to cancel debts and double trade over the next five years.
Russia is also attempting to build a counterweight to the US military unit in Africa, the United States Africa Command or Africom for short. The US is planting a network of army bases on the continent for control and, if necessary, rapid intervention.
Russia, too, is aiming to ensure access to ports and naval bases. This will enable it to support possible military operations in the Red Sea, which separates East Africa from Asia, and the Mediterranean, which borders the North African countries.
Therefore, Russia’s Africa policy is linked to its Middle East policy, with an important role for Syria, for example. Strategic locations for Russia are the ports of Berbera (Somaliland), Massawa and Assab (Eritrea), Port Sudan (Sudan) and various maritime facilities in Libya.
Other Russian priorities are the Suez Canal, the eastern Mediterranean and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, Russia is trying to gain a foothold in southern Africa in Mozambican ports. It has also conducted joint naval exercises with South Africa.
Weapons and fake news
Russia’s quest for influence and allies in Africa is mainly centred on that military domain. Russia has displayed little ambition to become a major economic partner. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the annual turnover of Russian companies in Africa is about 20 billion dollars, a little less than a tenth of both Chinese and European turnover.
However, in the African security market, Russia did become an important player. Arms trade is of paramount importance here. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 2016 to 2020, Russia was the world’s second largest arms exporter after the US. It signed up for 30% of all weapons sold to sub-Saharan African countries during that period.
SIPRI further estimates that in those four years, 18% of Russia’s total arms exports went to African countries. The main African buyers of Russian arms are Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal and Zambia. Russian weapons enjoy a solid reputation on the continent: they are considered affordable, easy in maintenance and reliable.
African customers seem increasingly interested in fighter planes, helicopters, tanks and air defence systems. The fact that Russia does not ask critical questions about human rights is no detail.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Wagner Group was involved in massacres in the Malian town of Moura at the end of March.
Russia has signed some 20 military agreements with African partners in recent years, considerably more than in the decade before the Sochi summit. Those agreements concern cooperation in the field of security. In 2021, for example, such agreements were concluded with Nigeria and Ethiopia, Africa’s two most populous countries, both of which have ambitions for leadership in their region.
The Russian government and the Wagner Group both declare that they have nothing to do with each other, but everything indicates that there is close cooperation.
An important, by now almost mythical instrument for the implementation of Russia’s Africa policy is the paramilitary Wagner Group. Officially, this is a private company that operates independently from the government. The group sends mercenaries to conflict areas all over the world. They are then deployed in combat situations, but also to protect mining interests, including in Madagascar and the Central African Republic. The Wagner Group would have about 6,000 troops at its disposal. Most of them are Russian veterans, but Syrians have also been spotted in a number of countries.
The Russian government and the Wagner Group both declare that they have nothing to do with each other, but everything indicates that there is close cooperation, for example with the Russian military intelligence service GRU.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Wagner Group was involved in the massacres in the Malian town of Moura at the end of March. There, Wagner assists the government, which came to power after a coup, in the fight against jihadism. Between 27 and 31 March, 300 civilians were executed without trial.
In recent years, Russia has also invested heavily in disinformation campaigns in Africa. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there have been at least 16 operations of what the Russian government itself calls ‘ambiguous warfare’. In doing so, they deliberately stir up grievances and discord within a particular country.
The aim is often not so much to convince, but to confuse citizens and foster disillusionment or apathy. Fake news campaigns have been identified in all countries where the Wagner Group is active. This approach hardly differs from the way Russia supported President Trump’s candidacy in the United States in 2016. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok are used as important weapons in the disinformation battle.
Anti-Western voting behaviour?
There are several reasons why far fewer African countries supported the UN resolution against the Russian invasion. One is that many African countries are very sceptical about NATO and, by extension, the West. Political opinion and the press in various African countries increasingly regard the traditional Western allies as hypocrites.
Western countries have lost a lot of moral credit with their interference, and this is reflected in the voting behaviour.
From an African perspective, the West is mainly concerned with its own economy and population. Western countries constantly refer to democratic values and human rights, but only act when their own economic interests or liberal agenda are at stake.
The way in which the West got rid of Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 particularly shocked many Africans. NATO, led by France, bombed targets in Libya and Gaddafi was killed. Those actions destabilised not only the country but the whole region. More or less the same can be said about the fall of Sadam Hussein. Many Western countries have lost a lot of moral credit with their interference, and this is reflected in the voting behaviour.
For many countries in Africa, the current confrontation between Russia and the West brings back bad memories of the Cold War. The first thirty years of independence were heavily coloured by it. In those years, Africa was no more than a pawn on the Cold War chessboard.
The two power blocs confronted each other via third countries, sometimes in the most cynical manner. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union clashed over the Somali-Ethiopian conflict, and the way in which this was done defied all imagination. The US supported Ethiopia, the Soviet Union Somalia. When the Marxist military deposed the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the superpowers simply changed sides.
The war in Ukraine may well be an impetus to revive the Non-Aligned Movement.
Several wars and civil wars were the result of this division into power blocs, with a heavy toll in human lives, due to a conflict in which Africa basically had nothing to do. Not voting with the West is a firm refusal to step back into the bipolar logic into which Russia’s war is pushing the world.
The 16 abstentions and 9 countries that did not participate in the vote can at least partly be explained as an expression of the desire to remain neutral.
Africa is comfortable with the multi-polar world of the turn of the century, and feels comfortable with diverse interlocutors. The war in Ukraine may well be an impetus to revive the Non-Aligned Movement, analysts, journalists and think tanks suggest.
This was the alliance through which countries, especially from the Global South, tried to navigate between the two blocs during the Cold War, with varying degrees of success. The movement was never disbanded, but has led a rather dormant existence in recent decades.
For a number of countries, the vote on the UN resolution was probably just the opposite. During the Cold War, they were supported by the Soviet Union in their armed struggle for independence. Apparently, to some extent, Putin’s Russia remains the heir to this gratitude. This is true, for example, of a number of countries in southern Africa, such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where liberation movements waged a long armed struggle.
Other countries depend on Russia, for example, for the fight against internal uprisings or for the supply of grain and fertilisers. Some countries therefore do not dare take a stand against Russia. The same applies to many countries that voted in favour of the resolution, but then allowed their dependence on Western partners to weigh in.
In some Western media, especially American media, it seems as if the democratic countries in Africa voted for the UN resolution and the autocratic countries voted against or abstained. But that is very short-sighted. Two of the most established African democracies, South Africa and Senegal, not only abstained, they are also just trying to mediate.
‘As Africans, we do not feel involved in this conflict at all,’ says Alphonse Ntumba Luaba, who has a long record in Congolese and African politics. ‘Europeans fight each other over power and influence. We do not feel it is about values. For us, the wave of solidarity with Ukraine is shocking, because it confronts us with the double standards in the compassion business. The chance that this conflict will divide us seems extremely small to me.’
Ntumba Luaba was secretary general of the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) from 2011 to 2016 and in 2020 coordinated the cell that prepared President Tshisekedi’s presidency of the African Union. During that presidency, from February 2021 to February 2022, he was Tshisekedi’s right hand man.
‘I do not think that voting on the UN resolution says much about how countries here view democracy and good governance or not.’
Alphonse Ntumba Luaba
What does he think of the African attempts at mediation with Russia? ‘I think it is good that Sall and Ramaphosa are trying to mediate. We do not know if it will succeed, but better this than doing nothing. Many people feel that Putin should look for a way out without losing face. Perhaps Africa can play a role in that.’
Ntumba Luaba has a great understanding of the ins and outs of African multilateral institutions and the various sensitivities at play. Does he also see the vote on the UN resolution as a choice against democracy, a symptom of emerging autocracies? ‘I don’t think it says much about how countries here view democracy and good governance or not. It does say something about the international governance that is imposed on us here from the West. We are thoroughly fed up with that. We find it especially hypocritical.’
This article was translated by Brita Vandermeulen.